How can I get my money back from a fake booking site?

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By Christopher Elliott

Francis Popiel recently fell for a fake booking site — and now he wants his money back.

Although he booked the right hotel, he found it by Googling “Holiday Inn Alexandria.” Instead of taking him to the official hotel site, the search results led him to a third-party company called Guestreservations com.

And that’s where all his problems began.

It looked like the Holiday Inn website — it definitely wasn’t

“When you click on this link, it appears to be the Holiday Inn website,” he says. “The photos and layout are the same.”

He says Guestreservations com charged him a “deceptive” $159 fee on top of a $338 room rate.

Don’t want to get fleeced by a fake booking site? Be careful where you click.

Popiel’s story is a cautionary tale for the rest of us to look carefully before booking. There are sites out there that look legit but may not be. But you can easily spot them.

Fake sites are still a big problem

Even though the hotel industry launched a massive campaign to educate consumers on the dangers of these third-party sites, the problem is still with us. Bogus hotel sites look like the real thing, right down to the professional photos and hotel logos. They even have the name of the hotel in their URL.

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My advocacy team often hears from readers like Popiel who thought they were booking through a hotel site, but weren’t. It seems the search engines can be manipulated as easily as ever to allow these fake sites to continue.

I’ll have some advice on how to spot a fake in a moment.

Looking for clues about the identity of the fake booking site

Guestreservations com didn’t respond to messages asking about Popiel’s case. The site describes itself as an intermediary focused on “connecting travelers” to bargains. “As an independent travel network, we can get you the same deals you expect with a bigger travel agency or direct from the hotel,” it adds.

I tried to duplicate Popiel’s reservation. But in the time between making the reservation and his complaint, Google changed its secret algorithm to promote the official Holiday Inn site at the top of its ranking.

And while it’s true that Guestreservations com’s site does not claim to be an official Holiday Inn site, it also doesn’t specifically say it isn’t. (There are clues, though, including the bright red notice that says, “Jackpot! This is today’s low rate,” and an annoying countdown clock that only gives you 10 minutes to make up your mind about your reservation. Tacky.)

Soojin Yoon, a spokeswoman for InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn, said it is not involved in transactions that customers make on third-party websites such as Guestreservations com.

“We encourage guests to book directly through our channels for greater control over their reservations, and to access exclusive loyalty rates,” she added.

A warning from the Federal Trade Commission about sites that pose as the real thing

The Federal Trade Commission has issued a warning about fake sites that seem to be posing as the real thing. The agency said it heard from customers who searched online and thought they were booking on a hotel website, only to find they’d unknowingly been doing business with someone else.

“For those times you’re looking to book directly with a hotel,” the FTC warned, “make sure that’s what you’re doing.”

Since then, the problem has gotten worse. It’s not the legitimate online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking com perpetrating the scam, says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s the sites deliberately set up to dupe consumers,” he says. “They’re becoming more lucrative for hackers trying to obtain data on individuals.”

Beware of fake booking sites

Look at the website you’re on very carefully before booking. Some travel sites look legit but aren’t.

For example, when Kate McCulley needed a visa to visit Azerbaijan, she went online and found several official-looking options. She now refers to these sites as impostors.

“I came very close to using one of these sites by mistake,” says McCulley, who publishes an eponymous website that helps solo women travelers.

Airlines aren’t exempt from scammy booking sites that can lead to booking mistakes either.

Remember the case of Naomi Poel? The Ada, Michigan, traveler fell for a site that claimed to be an official Delta Air Lines site last summer. Unfortunately, she took the site at face value when it claimed, “We, at Delta Air Lines.” Falling for that fake airline booking site cost her family $300.

Trying to raise awareness of this deceptive practice

Popiel, the engineer from Ohio, just wants people to know about impostor sites.

“I would like to raise awareness among travelers of this deceptive practice,” he says. But, beyond that, he wonders why legitimate businesses would accept a reservation through a third party that tries to deceive their customers. That’s a valid question.

I asked. The IHG spokeswoman (we list executive contacts in our company contacts database) described the online travel distribution system as “quite complex,” adding “we are always assessing options as the distribution landscape evolves.” (Here’s how to resolve your own consumer problems.)

I’m sure we’ll be the first to hear if it cuts ties with Guestreservations com.

“Third-party websites are sophisticated these days,” says Adam Levin, the founder of CyberScout, a Scottsdale, Arizona, security firm. “Websites can look almost identical to legitimate airline or hotel websites. Always verify you are on a secure webpage to make reservations or book travel.” (Related: Can TaxRise really help itself to $900 of my money?)

Perhaps the best way to avoid these sites is to pay attention. If you’re booking an airline ticket, hotel room or getting a visa, read the website’s address. If you’re not on the official site, odds are you’re dealing with a third party. And that third party may try to rip you off. Don’t walk away — run!

How to avoid falling for a fake booking site

Here’s how to steer clear of these scammy sites:

Do your research

That’s the advice of Clive Wood, global commercial manager at OTA Insight, a company that develops hotel revenue management systems. “It’s worth Googling the name of the website to see if anything has been written about it online,” he says. “Travelers should also always check the small print before processing their transactions.”

Know your destination and book direct

Type the web address directly — and carefully. Bear in mind that some unscrupulous third-party impostor booking sites have snatched up domain names with common misspellings of the companies they’re spoofing. And they’re waiting for you to make a mistake.

Ask the site about yourself

Here’s another easy way to determine if a site is legit: It knows you. “A big giveaway is the ability to provide personalized, differentiated products and services,” says Aditi Mehta, a strategy director at PROS, a software firm in Houston. Remember, if the site doesn’t know who you are, it may be a third party site pretending to be the real thing.

Here’s how to get your money back from a fake hotel site

Most fake booking sites will refuse to refund your money. You have to file a dispute with your credit card company and show that you were misled. The good news is that the scammiest sites don’t bother to respond to credit card disputes because they know they’re running a scam. So you win by default. But you’ll want to have a solid paper trail to prove you were duped — just in case.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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